Amy Crawford in Smithsonian Magazine:
“During Derby Week, Louisville is the capital of the world,” wrote John Steinbeck in 1956. “The Kentucky Derby, whatever it is—a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion—is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced.”
For generations, crowds have herded to Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville on the first Saturday in May, with millions more tuning in to live television coverage. The Kentucky Derby, a 1-¼ mile race for 3-year-old Thoroughbred horses, is the longest continually held sporting event in the United States—the horses have run without interruption since 1875, even during both World Wars.
But for its first few decades, says Jay Ferguson, a curator at Louisville’s Kentucky Derby Museum, “the Derby wasn’t the horserace. Back around the turn of the century there were three horses in the race, and Churchill Downs had been losing money for every year it had been in existence.” It took savvy marketing, movie stars, southern tradition and luck to turn what could have been just another horse race into what many have called “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”